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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Mary Poppins
Prince Edward Theatre 2004 - 2008

It has the largest advance sale in West End history, a built-in guaranteed family audience, and the combined marketing power of Cameron Mackintosh and the Disney corporation behind it. If ever there was a critic-proof show, this is it.

And, if anyone cares, it's actually pretty good.

The logical point of comparison is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, another show aimed at families and people who do not ordinarily go to the theatre. But, where Chitty oozes with contempt for that audience, giving them the absolute minimum necessary to keep them coming in, Mary Poppins is a well-made, thoroughly entertaining musical. It's not My Fair Lady, but it is real value-for-money for its chosen audience.

The musical has a new script by Julian Fellowes that draws on both the original P. L. Travers stories of the magical nanny and the somewhat softened 1964 Disney movie, and eight new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to supplement the Sherman Brothers film score.

The story is ever-so-slightly darker than in the film, with a little more emphasis on the Banks family's unhappy home life before Mary Poppins makes all well, and ticket-buyers are warned that the show isn't for the under-sevens, though the only potentially upsetting part is a new scene in which the children's toys come alive and condemn them for mistreating them.

The new songs blend in nicely with the familiar Spoonful of Sugar, Chim Chim Cheree and Supercal..., and a couple of them - Mary's self-introducing Practically Perfect and the happy ending Anything Can Happen - may well achieve the same status as children's classics.

Richard Eyre's direction keeps things moving, choreographer Matthew Bourne restages the familiar numbers cleverly, including adding YMCA-style spelling gestures to Supercal..., and has one really good flashy Broadway-style dance number in Step in Time, and if Bob Crowley's set design is a bit clunky (reminding one of the overelaborate sets of Sunset Boulevard), it doesn't get in the way.

And yes, Mary does fly in and out, quite impressively, though she never does slide up the bannister (and she runs up and down the stairs so many times that you keep expecting it to happen). The film's animation scenes have been replaced by the stage magic of dancing statues and flying kites, and at one point Bert the chimney sweep gets to dance up one side of the proscenium arch, across the top and back down the other side.

The one serious flaw in the show is that at its centre is a piece of wood. Even my eleven-year-old companion was aware that Laura Michelle Kelly was making Mary Poppins even stiffer and less personable than the role required  And Kelly has been stuck with a wig and makeup that leave her looking disconcertingly like Disney's Snow White.

Kelly sings prettily enough, and she does come alive once or twice, notably in the big Step in Time dance number, but whatever personality she may have has been directed out of her, and she really is a charisma black hole at the heart of the play, sucking animation out of too many of her scenes.

Fortunately the rest of the cast goes far toward supplying what the star lacks. Gavin Lee is an attractive, amiable and lively Bert. It has become fashionable to ridicule Dick Van Dyke's attempt at a cockney accent in the film, but Van Dyke had charm galore, and Julie Andrews ended up deferring to him in all their scenes together.

Lee's Bert knows his place and, even though the new script turns him into an ever-present narrator, he is directed to support the star and not steal the limelight, except when he does let loose in Step in Time and show what real star power looks like.

Five sets of kids rotate from night to night as Michael and Jane, and if they're all as natural and unsaccharine as the couple I saw, the roles are in good hands. David Haig uses his own personal charm to make Mr. Banks loveable even when he's being a bear.

Let me give the last word to my eleven-year-old friend. A bit of a purist in such things, she pronounced herself quite satisfied with the show and said she was particularly pleased that they were able to add new scenes and songs 'and not tamper with a classic.'

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Mary Poppins - Prince Edward 2004